As pivotal as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in the development and popularization of the animated feature film, it’s easy to lose sight of its achievements next to the constantly improving technology behind Computer-generated imagery and its cinematic product. Here is a film without the benefit of computer rendering, predefined demographic, celebrity vocal talent or hip source material, stubbornly out of step with its era (World War II was right around the corner) and little more than a relic in the Digital Age.
Yet, after 78 years, hundreds of successors and much industry “progress,” Snow White lingers in the cultural zeitgeist, maintaining significance through the allure of its imagery and the simplicity of its themes. You can feel the human touch behind every pencil stroke of Snow White’s hand-drawn environment, producing a crisp and radiant color palette overflowing with powdery whites and royal blues. Cheeks and noses are rosey as if blood runs through each character’s veins and every motion is poetic in its fluidity, making for a limber and organic human alternative to CGI’s coldness.
Its themes are just as rapturous as its sketches, but never overly complicated, functioning off of a template that would prove timeless, dealing in heroes battling villains and love conquering evil. Though fear and jealousy would play a big role in the film’s primary conflict, these emotions are transmitted through a heightened melodrama that never betrays its environment, always protecting the audience through the cloistered world of fantasy. The end result is as beautiful, scary and enchanting as fairy tales could ever hope to be, impossible to resist despite the passage of time and streamlining of the genre.
Walt Disney, the producer and creative force behind the project, understood the importance of ritual in cinema and used the opening moments of the film to transport us to a world of make-believe. As the camera pans over a white, live-action environment, the shot zooms in on the pages of a storybook, gradually transitioning us into the animated world with the turn of each leaf.
Our first vision is the cold stone wall of the Queen’s castle, slowly descending into a maze of shadowy corridors and crimson drapery. The narcissistic monarch sways before her mirror, beckoning the disembodied spectre that lies dormant within to tell her that she is the “fairest one” in all of the land. In a moment of defiance, the usually subservient oracle reveals the truth, bestowing the honor of most beautiful upon the humble Snow White, the Queen’s maid and reluctant stepdaughter.
In a fit of rage, the Queen yearns for the slaughter of the humble child, demanding a huntsman lure the girl into the woods, dismember her body and place her still heart into a bright red jewelry box. Though the hulking brute nearly goes forward with the plan, stalking behind the maiden with hatchet withdrawn, he comes to his senses and releases Snow White into the woods, an environment that proves to be as frightening as his attempts at murder. As the virginal princess scampers through the forest, the shrubbery comes alive around her, morphing branches into gnarled claws and logs into the snapping jaws of crocodiles, perfectly embodying a child’s imagined vision of the unknown through the frenzied handiwork of the animation team.
Sensing the innocence of the frightened child, the denizens of the forest rush to her aid, calming her through an avian harmony that matches the exquisite fragility of her own vibrato (gracefully sung by Adriana Caselotti). The affable creatures even guide her to an empty cabin for a moment’s rest, but the ever-subservient Snow White sees this as an opportunity to spruce up the dusty hovel, engaging the critters in a lively cleaning montage that humorously repurposes a tortoise as a washboard and birds as bedmakers.
Despite her best efforts at housekeeping, the diminutive diamond miners that occupy the cabin are initially suspicious of her “feminine wiles,” reluctant to scrub their grubby hands before dinner or share their beds with the modest chambermaid. It was only after taking an intense sniff of her simmering soup on the kettle and collaborating with her in song that they accepted the transient princess, vowing to protect her from her diabolical matriarch and keep her company until a noble prince whisks her off to “happily ever after.”
The collective behavior of these Seven Dwarfs carries on in the slapstick tradition, primarily consisting of awkward stumbles and painful pratfalls, the type that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chaplin short or Marx Brothers’ farce. Their names even smack of the absurd, mimicking their physical traits so closely that Snow White can pick out each one simply by gazing at their faces and pairing it with the appropriate moniker adorning their bedframe.
Just as the octet began to adjust to their new arrangement, the Queen got wind of the huntsman's ruse, uncovering the pig’s heart disguised as Snow White’s in the gold-encrusted jewelry box. Realizing that she has to execute the child herself, the Queen descends a spiral staircase into her cobwebbed potion room, mixing a toxic concoction intended to shock Snow White into a coma, curable only by “love’s first kiss.”
The transformation sequence that occurs in her occult lair is the closest Snow White comes to “pure cinema,” visualizing the Queen’s metamorphosis from elegant waif to cackling shrew through the juxtaposition of her changing form over the swirl of a bubbling cauldron and the winds of a torrential downpour. The glimmering candlelight and sublime shadowplay of her witch’s den also enhance the mood, proving more evocative than real-life experience and wrapping the viewer in the narrative while eliciting goosebumps and a genuine sense of fear.
This feeling of trepidation will evolve into elation in the closing moments and it's the range of emotions elicited that makes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so vital, compelling its audience to succumb to a world of make-believe unencumbered by modernity and cynicism.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney Productions, 1937)
Directed by David Hand (supervising director)
Written by The Brothers Grimm (fairy tale), Ted Sears (story adaptation), Richard Creedon (story adaptation), Otto Englander (story adaptation), Dick Rickard (story adaptation), Earl Hurd (story adaptation), Merrill De Maris (story adaptation), Dorothy Ann Blank (story adaptation) and Webb Smith (story adaptation)